(Not) Political Films

Blake Backlash tries to get-over the general election by watching political films that aren’t. Or maybe that should be non-political films that are.

10.01pm on Thursday 7th May, 2015 and Rowdy Roddy Piper sees that exit-poll.
10.01pm on Thursday 7th May, 2015 and Rowdy Roddy Piper sees that exit-poll.

Films are no cure for disappointment. Or, at the very least, it’s a tricky business to prescribe the right one. When you’re feeling low, when you’re chewing on bitterness or hopelessness, and you try and watch a film that makes you feel happy, most often you find its light can’t shine into your gloomy corners. You get to the happy ending and it’s like looking through glass at someone else’s celebration. You can’t find a place to connect.

But go too far in the other direction and you’re screwed as well. Watch a movie that deals directly with whatever is weighing you down and, instead of being starved of connections, you choke on them. Every detail that reminds you of your own predicament is like an hook in your gullet, one that pulls you out of the world of the film, leaves you flailing and gasping through your own worried thoughts.

But… I think that somewhere in the middle there may a sweet spot. Sweet enough, anyway. You can find a film a film that’s… sort of for what ails you. One that comes at your troubles on a tangent can fan the right flames, stir-up the passions that will get you out of the funk you’re in, while still letting you escape your troubles for a couple of house.

So with that in mind – here are MostlyFilm’s ideas for political films to watch that won’t remind you of what happened on Thursday. There may be the odd politician lurking in these films but they’re mostly free of ballot boxes, and any speeches made are worth listening to. So, soundbite version, however you voted the other day and however you feel today: seek out these films:

Quiz Show, Robert Redford, 1994

One of the things Quiz Show tells us is that the public like their winners to look like winners. We see how, faced with a choice between a slick-haired, soft-skinned aristo and a slightly awkward Jewish intellectual, the media (and the corporations that back them) will fix it so the man who comes out on top is the man who comes from money and is more likely to do what they want. And how the public are complicit in letting that happen.

But – since I’m supposed to NOT be reminding you of the election – you should know that Quiz Show is more subtle than the previous paragraph suggests. It’s about the allure of money and power, the connections between the two, and how having both allows you to escape your day of reckoning.

But, crucially it’s a humane film and one that shows you the personal cost everyone pays, even those that are chosen as winners. This is brought home by some phenomenal acting by Ralph Fiennes and Paul Scofield.

Meek’s Cutoff, Kelly Reichard, 2010

Not George W Bush.
Not George W Bush.

Watch a film about a bunch of Americans lost in a hostile wilderness and it won’t be long before someone tells you it’s an allegory for American foreign-policy. John Boorman’s Deliverance and Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort both evoke the unease urban Americans might feel in its rural corners – and this feeling of out-of-placeness picks at scars associated with foreign wars. Both films contain horrors, even if they aren’t exactly horror films. Their intense violence, the mud and trees seem made out of memories of television reports about the Vietnam War.

Meek’s Cutoff is set in the desert – and there’s uncertainty and confusion here too. But it’s a much quieter, more muted film. That’s partly down to Kelly Reichardt’s oblique style – and means we have film less about the fear and confusion of war, more about the doubts and unease of a fragile peace. Stephen Meek leads a band of settlers on the Oregon trail in 1845. They get lost and it starts to look like, while Meek talks tough, he doesn’t really know where he’s going or what he’s doing. The settlers come across a Native American who starts off as their prisoner but ends up as their guide. They need water badly.

Meek’s Cutoff is based on a true story but… it’s also a story about being led into the desert by a charismatic (but dumb) cowboy blowhard, getting lost, and then having to trust someone who knows the place better, might be your enemy, and has little reason to trust you.

A Man For All Seasons, Fred Zinnemann, 1966

Oh, look, Paul Scofield again. Sir Thomas More loses status, friends and liberty but sill doesn’t change his mind. For better or for worse Robert Bolt’s script (based on his play) veers between fidelity (More’s speech at his trial is closely modelled on the one he actually gave) and an ahistorical portrayal of man of personal principle (rather than a man of faith). One of the saddest ever movie anecdotes I know is about Robert Bolt.

After he made A Man For All Seasons, when Bolt was writing the script for Lawrence of Arabia, he was arrested along with most of the members of an anti-nuclear weapons committee he’d helped found. He hadn’t done anything, the cops were trying to stop a planned demonstration happening. Bolt refused to be bound over (the 60s equivalent of accepting a caution , where you signed something that said you accepted you had done wrong and promised to be good in the future). So Bolt was sent to an open-prison in Shropshire. Sam Spiegel, the producer of Lawrence tried to get him to compromise. Bolt resisted at first but eventually… relented under the pressure and was released from prison to work on the script. He found it hard to forgive himself this compromise and, felt like he’d been faced with a choice like the one More faced, and had chosen to capitulate where More stood firm.

They Live, John Carpenter, 1988







Well… maybe I haven’t done as good a job at steering clear of the election as I said I would. But then again, as a friend said to me when we were talking about this article, isn’t everything a bit political? Other friends suggested Ghosbusters, Blazing Saddles, Die Hard, The Man in the White Suit, Citizen Kane. I haven’t seen Age of Ultron yet but I bet that you could see politics there as well. You might need to squint a bit. Or, do like John Nada says and put the glasses on.

These days, you get them when you buy your ticket – you just have to pay a little extra.

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